Sunday, 4 December 2011

The Amazing Race 19, Episode 10

Brussels (Belgium) - Amsterdam (Netherlands) - Panama City (Panama)

The outcome of this week’s episode of The Amazing Race 19 was determined by yet another challenge in identifying the signal amid the noise: The racers were told that their clue could be found somewhere on the patterned and printed costumes of a troupe of dancers, and had to figure out which of the various words and images held the key.

The Christian snowboarders, who as professional athletes had dominated the race thus far this season, were eliminated after they misread the word “Balboa” on the coins the dancers were wearing as indicating the Balboa district of the Panama City, at the entrance to the Panama Canal. In fact, the word “Balboa” was merely the name of the unit of Panamanian currency, and wasn’t the clue at all. The racers’ clue was printed elsewhere on the dancers’ dresses: the words “Panama Viejo” — the site of the original colonial settlement of Panama City — and a picture of one of the structures in those ruins.

Especially if you don’t know the language, and sometimes even if you do but are less than fluent, it can be difficult to tell which of the words on a sign are the significant ones. Do the words someone is pointing out to you on a map translate as the name of your desired destination, or as “You are here”? If you can, try to get a local person to write down directions for you, rather than relying on correctly transcribing them in an unknown language.

The more interesting feature of this episode was how the racers got to Panama. To make their way from Brussels, they were instructed first to take a train from Brussels to Amsterdam, and then to fly from Amsterdam to Panama City.

There are many cheap flights between Brussels and other cities in Europe. After my most recent visit to Brussels in October, I flew out on Easyjet to Berlin. But most of the cheaper airlines serve the distant “Brussels South Charleroi Airport” (CRL), not the closer “Brussels National Airport” (BRU) at Zaventem. Even from Zaventem, there are few direct intercontinental flights.

Brussels is, however, near the mid-point of the high-speed rail line between Paris and Amsterdam. From central Brussels, it’s less than an hour and a half on a direct train — faster than flight connections — northeast to Schiphol Airport (AMS) or southwest to Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG), each of which has extensive intercontinental services. So it’s actually quite typical for a journey around the world from Brussels to start out on one of these trains.

But why is there a daily nonstop flight between AMS and PTY? It’s not like there’s a large Panamanian expat or immigrant community in Holland, or an especially large number of Dutch tourists in Panama.

Airline routes normally follow trade routes and the profitable first- and business-class traffic they generate. Maritime business relationships between Rotterdam — the busiest port in Europe — and the Panama Canal probably explain why Amsterdam is the only European city with direct airline service to or from Panama.

But that’s still not enough of an explanation. With the exception of Brazil-Portugal services — some of the shortest trans-Atlantic flights — direct flights between Europe and Latin America or the Caribbean are rare (and Asia-Latin America flights are almost nonexistent). Until a decade ago, most passengers travelling between those regions took for granted the necessity (even if they found it a nuisance) of changing planes in the USA, typically in Miami or New York if travelling to or from Europe (or Los Angeles en route to or from Asia).

The expansion of direct Europe-Latin America flights, including the existence of services like AMS-PTY, has been driven primarily by changes in US visa and immigration practices since 11 September 2001. Costs in money and harassment imposed by the US government have enabled airlines that offer direct services to charge a premium for avoiding the US. And that premium can make the difference in whether it’s profitable to fly such a route.

All provisions for transit of the US without a visa have been abolished, and the fee for a US visa of any sort — even the transit visa required merely to change planes in the US — has been increased to US$135 (plus the cost of travel to a US embassy or consulate for an in-person visa interview). That means anyone subject to US visa requirements, including almost all Latin Americans, will be willing to pay at least $135 more to fly on any route that avoids the US.

Some people can’t get visas to the US at all, while others aren’t even allowed in US airspace. A few weeks ago in Brussels, I had lunch in the European Parliament with Paul-Emile Dupret, a policy advisor on the staff of the Parliament whose Air France flight from Paris to Mexico City — nonstop — was diverted because the US wouldn’t allow any plane carrying M. Dupret to overfly Florida. The Air France pilot told M. Dupret, with an apology, that he’s the subject of a US “no-fly” order. But M. Dupret has never seen the order himself, and the airline isn’t allowed to show it to him and wasn’t told why it was issued. He’s been trying to find out why the US thinks he’s a terrorist [sorry, the video interview with M. Dupret is in French with Dutch subtitles, having been produced for the Belgian audience of that country’s 2010 Big Brother Awards], but more than a year later he’s received no official information, and is still just guessing at the reasons.

People like M. Dupret — innocent foreigners on foreign-flag airlines trying to travel between foreign countries, who were passing through or over the US only out of necessity — are among those most threatened by current efforts by the US government to extend its surveillance and control of air travel even further, to flights throughout the rest of the world.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 4 December 2011, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

There are plenty of flights from France and UK to the Caribbean, former colonies mostly, also from NL to Surinam, for example. Remember the ill-fated AF447 was a daily flight from Rio to CDG, as have DLH, BA, and local airlines.

Posted by: barry, 15 December 2011, 02:11 ( 2:11 AM)
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